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Q&A with Barry Bluestone on the many projects of his "think and do tank"

There’s not much white space in Barry Bluestone’s monthly planner. May 14: keynote speech to the Massachusetts Mayors Association on the state economy and stagnant population growth. May 20: chair the World Auto Roundtable in Switzerland, sponsored by the International Labour Organization of Geneva. May 22: on to Rome to address The Center for International Social Studies of Rome, on the topic of “Obama Economics.”

“We’re pretty busy,” says Bluestone, a leading economic expert in housing and the auto industry and the founding director of the Northeastern University Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. “Hey, look at this,” he adds, picking up the latest issue of the Mass Law Review. The lead article focuses on affordable-housing legislation his center helped draft and pass in 2005.

What is your current push to create home-price insurance through federal legislation?
We’ve been working with the National Association of Realtors on a plan to create legislation for home-price insurance. It’s an effort the Dukakis Center has coordinated with housing experts in greater Boston.

How would home-price insurance work?
The idea is that the federal government would insure new homebuyers who purchase a house within 18 months of the law taking effect against a possible drop in property value. We hope this would provide first-time buyers with an incentive. The idea is in its preliminary stages, but if successful, it would come through Congress or the president.

If a form of homebuyer insurance passes, how do you see it changing the housing and economic picture?
Since 2007, we’ve seen a steady decline in home values, and yet rents have been rising nationally. This is precisely because the ownership market is in so much trouble; young people who would normally be converting from rentals are leery of buying because they want to see if housing prices will fall further. If we had a legislative guarantee on home values, it might serve as a great incentive for people to start buying again, and also free up some rental property.

You cowrote a Boston Globe op-ed, “The end of the McMansion,” with Ted Carman, president of Concord Square Planning and Development, emphasizing the need for housing that matches the needs of the next wave of young homebuyers.
That’s right. We anticipate a modest increase in the number of younger people seeking to buy houses. These will tend to be younger families seeking more modest homes—not the typical demographic seeking larger, expensive homes.

You have been a strong proponent of affordable housing development. What’s happened since you helped pass the state Smart Growth Zoning Laws in 2004 and 2005 (Chapter 40R and 40S) that encourage cities and towns to take up the challenge?
To date, 28 communities in the state have adopted the legislation and set aside parcels of land. What we did was offer incentives to communities to designate land near transportation hubs for more affordable development.

Your center is due to release its seventh Housing Report Card this September.
The Center for Urban and Regional Policy has produced a Housing Report Card in conjunction with the Boston Foundation and Citizens Housing and Planning Association for seven years. Now, as the Dukakis Center, we are continuing the effort, which focuses on housing production in 161 cities and towns, and tracks trends in housing prices and rents. It’s important to continue our vigilance, because, as the economy recovers, the need for affordable housing will continue to grow. The overarching trend is that prices exploded between 1995 and the fall of 2005; since then, home prices have been falling, and recent numbers suggest they will continue to decline in Greater Boston for most housing segments.

Since the Center for Urban and Regional Policy was renamed the Dukakis Center last November, how has life changed for your group?
Being associated with Mike and Kitty Dukakis has added more luster to the Center for Urban and Regional Policy. Adding their names to the center is a wonderful culmination to the work we do. Michael and Kitty have a long history of devotion to public service; these people are real heroes to us.

How will the Dukakis Center translate its research efforts to the community?
Our aim is to continue to develop programs for the neighborhoods next door to Northeastern. The university has a responsibility to work with other organizations in the neighborhood to assure that all those who live and work in the community benefit.

How does your work as cochair of the Stony Brook Initiative think tank help the communities around Northeastern?
The Stony Brook Initiative is a university-community partnership. Our center is involved in two important projects. One, headed by Laurie Dopkins, senior research associate, involves a total assessment of the work that faculty, staff and students are doing for the Stony Brook communities of Mission Hill, Roxbury, the South End, and the Fenway. The second project, funded by the Boston Foundation, assists community and neighborhood associations with the work they do. We want to help them with their missions.

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